The Nigerian law school, once the stamping ground for upbeat aspiring lawyers, as the last hurdle to mark off a glittering yet grueling 5 year university LLB study has in recent times become the waterloo of many a Nigerian law student just like Napoleon Bonaparte had suffered the ignominy of defeat at the great battle of waterloo.
It is such that recent bar exam result announcements in Nigeria seem more like a bloodbath with scores of law students needlessly having to retake the perennial bar exams.
Many of them approach the Nigerian law school (NLS) with little more than steely determination to succeed without reading the handwriting on the wall only to see their lofty dream of acing the bar exams go into a tail spin.
A quick glance at the law school results for the past two sessions should tell us something about the heartbreaking failure rates recorded at the exams.
According to sources, in the 2013/2014 session, about 3000 students of the roughly 5000 students who sat the bar exams failed with only 2000 students passing the exams.
That is about 60% failure rate for only that session, the highest recorded in 50 years at the Nigerian law school.
This announcement angered a lot of students and led some to protest accusing the law school management of deliberately failing them.
Again in the 2015 session about 1805 out of the 5588 students who sat the bar exam that year failed with four first class being recorded in the process.
That puts the failure rate for that session at nearly 35%. So if we take the 35% failure rate as our baseline, it would mean that nearly 3 to 4 out of every 10 law students admitted at the NLS will likely flunk the bar exams – that’s a scary proposition!
Now we turn to the $64, 000 dollar question. What is the cause of this shambolic performance among law students at the Nigerian Law School? There are about 5 possible reasons for the pedestrian NLS mass failure.
(1) A lot of students often ramble at the bar exams.
Usually at the university, law examiners prioritize quantity over quality.
As a result, many law students regurgitate page after page of crammed subjects hoping this would make up for the lack of quality and depth that characterize their writing.
In the majority of times law examiners at the university often overlook deficiencies in the approach and analysis of legal problems posed to students in their exams.
No matter how good a student is, writing a well-reasoned one page answer to a problem question won’t make the grade for the award of good marks by an examiner. You’ll have to write page after page of argument sometimes leading to the use of extra sheets before any student ever feels like they have done enough justice to a question (and herein lies the art of rambling).
So in a bid to win over an examiner with an appetite for quantity, students tend to say both ‘sense and nonsense’ hoping the examiner will take what is Caesar’s and ignore the irrelevant (we call this erring on the side of surplusage).
So can you think of the approach to answering law exam questions at the NLS?
You guessed right. It’s quite the opposite.
The method examiners adopt in their marking guides at the Nigerian law school is similar to being read one’s Miranda rights by the police. You are often told, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
In the same way, when law school students ramble in answering bar exam questions, the Law school examiners can hold the nonsense they say against them and mark them down.
At the law school, students adopt this same university-styled approach to answering exam questions.
They regurgitate things crammed, talk aimlessly, say a lot of sense and some nonsense for good measure and somehow hope the examiner “will understand”. But is it quite the contrary.
Rather than beat about the bush and waste the examiners time it is often better to just cut to the chase and say what is relevant to a given question without having to prioritize quantity of quality.
In an interview with the Nation newspaper, the DG of the Nigerian Law School Olanrewaju Onadeko was quite explicit on this rambling approach adopted by students. To quote him “Most students use the university approach to answer questions during the bar exams and end up failing”. He further said that students don’t understand the question being posed, go off point and don’t provide answers relevant to the question. Aren’t we as guilty? You be the judge!
(2) Poor and Unlawyerly analysis of legal problems.
Let’s just say law students get a little pampered at the university. Often we are treated as neophytes in law and it is not rare to hear lecturers refer to their protégées as “my students”.
But once at the law school, you have to cease seeing yourself as just a student (which is symbolic of one’s immaturity in law).
Since the law school represents the ultimate hurdle to one’s membership of the legal profession, one has to really think like a lawyer at this stage.
Usually you are judged by the yardstick of “someone who is soon going to be a lawyer.”
Thus your approach and analysis of legal problems must come to resemble that of a real lawyer or as near that as it can get.
Thus when a law school examiner looks at a candidate’s answer he will probably be asking himself the question “would I be satisfied enough to rely on this candidates answer if I were his or her client?”
As a law school student, you’ll do well not to just see your answers as hypothetical, but to see it as legal advice meant to solve a real client’s problems.
Be a bit more reflective, inquisitive and probing in whatever approach you adopt in solving problem questions.
Take nothing as given. As part of thinking like a lawyer which the law school expects of you, you will have to mature in your analysis of legal problems, spotting key issues, distinguishing legal authorities while also knowing how to argue like a lawyer.
(3) Law students write illegibly
OK, you’ve had this poor handwriting from primary school, carried it over into secondary school and at the university, you were fortunate enough not to get penalized for it.
And now at the Nigerian law school where everyone is addressing you as a ‘lawyer’ on account of your admission, you are still hoping to ace the bar exams with your nightmarish handwriting – aren’t you pushing your luck here?
Back at the university, your law classes were less crowded when compared to those of the NLS.
Perhaps your class had anywhere from 140 to 170 students.
And given your relative small class size (there are over a thousand students in each law school class), your university lecturers had fewer papers to grade after your exams and so weren’t reluctant to spend 45 minutes trying to make sense of your puzzling writing.
This isn’t the case with lecturers at the NLS. At the Nigerian law school accelerated year-long vocational program, there are nearly 5000 students each year and there’s no way those hasty examiners with these many scripts to grade can make out the the time to translate your illegible handwriting from gibberish to clarity. You’ll pay dearly for it.
Why not work on your illegible handwriting while you still can. For example you could buy pens that fit well in your hand and help improve your handwriting. Don’t make the mistake of some law school students who failed because they didn’t make the effort to improve their poor hand writing.
(4) Inability to maximize allocated time
This is a culpable deficiency of nearly every law student, and one that when taken to the Nigerian law school can effectively truncate whatever hopes students have of triumphing at the bar exams.
I can say this because I had suffered this same fate once as a law student and it is perhaps the reason why some law students end up dreading exams they had prepared for and written.
Due to this seeming inability to manage time effectively at the law school, some students spend too much time on a question only to end up not having enough time to attempt the required minimum of questions needed to pass the exams.
And the reality is that even where a student has spent all their time doing justice to a particular question at the expense of others, they’ll never get more than the maximum marks for that question. So why waste your time?
Why not split your time evenly among the number of questions you are to answer and be disciplined enough to stick to it.
That should save you the mistake of answering fewer questions arising from your inability to maximize your time at the bar exams.
(5) Poor reading and comprehension skills
The DG in the same interview with the Nation newspaper did say too that both “old timers” and “first timers” flunk the bar exams because they fail to give relevant answers.
Owing to the poor reading and comprehension skills of some law students some students tend to write faster than they think. Often you might find students at the bar exams who would just jump the gun and go right into answering a question before they have fully understood it.
Thus it is often after they have written copious answers to the question that the penny really drops and then they come to the sudden realization that they have been answering “their own question” all along. So it is only poetic justice then when such students perform poorly at the exams.
To avoid this mistake, you should take the time to read and understand the bar exam questions before you delve into answering them.
A youngish lawyer with penetrating insight, Patrick Herbert is the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Lawstudenthub, a site dedicated to helping new wigs find their footing in a trickily slippery legal profession and stay current with emerging developments in the legal industry. He holds an LL.B from the University of Benin and a BL from the Nigerian Law School, Abuja.
To get in touch, follow him on social media.